Fiction Reviews

The Causal Angel

(2014) Hannu Rajaniemi, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 292pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08898-6


This is the final novel in the Jean le Flambeur trilogy set in a post-human, post-singularity, future Solar system.

The thief, Jean le Flambeur, has lost Mieli (who had originally freed him from the Dilemma (quantum) Prison back in the The Quantum Thief) and her ship Perhonen.  Mieli might have died in the destruction of Earth when a Sobernost Hunter attacked the Perhonen. Jean is now on the solar-sail craft The Wardrobe -- named after the C. S. Lewis Narnia tale – he used to escape the fated Earth with a child (a long-stored back-up) version of the old Sobernost Founder Matjek Chen (who is really into Narnia stories). Meanwhile Josephine Pellegrini (a Sobernost Founder who originally tasked Mieli to free Jean) is trapped in a mind-shell, imprisoned by the All-Defector (a supposed glitch in the Dilemma Prison become manifest).

Having been saved from being by wildcode on Earth by the Aun (entities of Earth's last city Sirr who live in people's minds), Jean is now searching for Mieli whom the Perhonen tried to save by ejecting her. The problem is that if she is alive, everyone is also after her if only because she carries a Founder gogol in her head. Given that Meili's trail in the public data sources may have been corrupted, Jean makes to the one place they try to remember everything, Mars. There, he finds a recent record her in the data captured by a Quiet (machines run by downloaded citizens of the Mars prison Oubliette) astronomical observatory. Apparently, so the observatory record shows, Meili has been (supposedly) 'rescued' by the Zoku (transhumans).

We have already seen Jupiter gone with the Spike, and now Earth too has been destroyed. Those in the inner Solar System are decamping and heading outward as the powerful players vie, incidentally treading on lesser entities in the processes.

As for the bigger conflict, the Sobernost (established by Founders – humans who first used decent upload technology to gain immortality) have in the past battled the Zoku and tensions continue: the Sobernost seek to alter the fundamental laws of the Universe/space-time continuum while the Zoku utilise quantum reality. Meanwhile, various Sobernost factions vie with each other sometimes in an internecine way… It is all rather confusing.

Without giving away much of a spoiler, at the end of it all Hannu Rajaniemi manages to bring the trilogy to a successful, symmetrical conclusion, and overall the trilogy provides an inventive, intellectual rollercoaster ride packed with sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) and cultural references from literary nods, through Finnish (Hannu Rajaniemi's country of birth) terms and myth, to downright popular icons (including in passing 'James Bond'). One of my favourites was…

'Apparently, one hot jewel banking trend these days is that sufficiently advanced technology should be indistinguishable from nature…'

…Which, of course, alludes to Arthur Clarke's Third Law.

This is a rewarding book but, as is the trilogy as a whole, a challenging one with the rewards in no small part due to it demanding its readers to engage.  Rajaniemi does not do exposition or provide substantive info-dumps but reveals through showing and telling through the unfolding story.   Those of us reading the trilogy when the books first published, had to wait 18 months between instalments during which time readers' memories can dim. Subsequent readers have the advantage being able to enjoy the trilogy in one go. Nonetheless, a notepad is recommended to keep track of the terms, as is access to the internet to search on specialist science and SFnal nomenclature.  The other way to read it is to plunge in and surf the prose enjoying the rich vernacular picking up on just some of the references and accepting that some will be missed.  Either way, this is not a page-turner and the reader has to savour each paragraph lest they miss out on the many delicacies on offer. As such this book may not be to everyone's taste: it is high-end, hard SF.  Indeed, because the references and terms are grounded in, albeit often a slightly twisted version of, real-life culture and science it will be hard for those with a little dyslexia in them (if the stats are to be believed possibly around 10% of the population) and they will find the trilogy particularly hard to digest.  Here the numerous, very different characters and factions do not help.  On the other hand, if you enjoy works such as Lord of the Rings or The Book of the New Sun with their variety of players and imaginative lexicon respectively, you will really get off on Rajaniemi's trilogy.  This is high end, neutronium-hard, hard SF.

Personally speaking, not that you should care, I greatly enjoyed The Quantum Thief but much less so The Fractal Prince.  Though, after this last, The Causal Angel was a more easier, but still a challenging ride.

I seem not to have been alone in being struck by the sheer inventiveness of The Quantum Thief.  It made the Locus shortlist for 'The Best First Novel' (debut) (something I predicted) and third place for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2011. It also made the 2011 Hugo Award top 20 long-list (the short-list consists solely of the top 5 works gathering nominations by Worldcon registrants).

And, for what it is worth, at the beginning of 2011 it made the SF2 Concatenation team's Best Books of 2010 list. In 2011 the book also garnered Hannu a Eurocon Encouragement Award (given to young writers as a spur at the start of their writing career). The Quantum Thief also won Finland's 2012 Tähtivaeltaja Award.

With The Causal Angel we get a sound closure to the trilogy. This leaves us with the question as to what the author will do next? Will he stick to high-end, hard SF? Or will he try something a little different, perhaps more accessible to a wider range of, hence expand the number of his, readers? Either way it is going to be interesting to find out.

Jonathan Cowie

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